Wittman has a big, infectious laugh. He is generally described as the debonair, gregarious one, and Shaiman the anxious, disheveled musical savant, which is simplistic but true. One thing that Shaiman shares with Abagnale: super-sized precociousness. He grew up in Scotch Plains and was a prodigy—not just at piano but, as he has put it, “a showbiz prodigy.” (Billy Crystal, who would later employ him to co-write his Oscar-hosting musical numbers, calls Shaiman “Rain Jew,” for his encyclopedic knowledge of popular music.) At 18, he was Bette Midler’s accompanist, and not too long after that, her musical director.
Wittman was his own kind of whiz. By 11, he was casting friends in plays in his backyard in Nanuet. He was 21 when he met the 16-year-old Shaiman at the Village bar Marie’s Crisis. Shaiman had wandered in one afternoon and immediately sat down at the piano. In a moment worthy of an MGM movie, the owner said, “Hey, you’re good. Don’t move!” He knew Wittman needed a pianist for a show at the Duplex, a few doors down. Wittman’s first words to Shaiman: “Can you play ‘Together, Wherever We Go’ cheesy?” And, of course, he could. Shaiman and Wittman’s shared passion for the pop and swing of sixties entertainment, show business with an exclamation point, is the sensibility that they’ve brought to everything since—a sensibility that “we celebrate even as we make fun of it,” says Shaiman.
Theater took a ten-year detour when they moved to L.A. in 1989—paradise for Shaiman, misery for Wittman: “I tried to do theater, but as they say out there, it’s what you do when there are no TV roles.” That’s where the work was for Shaiman, who had moved on to scoring films—about 50 so far, including When Harry Met Sally …, The American President, and, with Trey Parker, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. “That was the gig that showed everything I can do: write music, lyrics, arrange, and orchestrate,” he says.
It was also the gig that got the two, finally, inevitably, to Broadway. Producer Margo Lion hired them to write the music and lyrics for the John Waters film Hairspray. “That changed our lives,” says Shaiman, who professed his love for Wittman at the 2003 Tony Awards, leading to the telecast’s first gay kiss. “It was everything we’d been working for.” A Club 57 show with lots of money.
Shaiman has said that if Hairspray was 16 magazine, then Catch is Playboy. “There used to be what they’d call a show for the tired businessman, because it featured gorgeous, leggy girls,” says Shaiman. “And we have some of the most gorgeous on Broadway. They should put ‘For Men Who Hate Musicals’ on the poster.” The music is reminiscent of what you might have heard on any Sunday night on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The best thing about the mid-sixties was that it was the last time styles of music weren’t segregated,” says Shaiman. “So I might be watching Sullivan for the Beatles or the Supremes, but I was exposed to Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee, and Judy Garland.” (Wittman was watching for Garland.)
Jack O’Brien, the director of Catch and Hairspray, likens the new show to “stuffing fifteen pounds in a one-pound bag. Specifically, how to move a true story—an unbelievably true story—within the totally artificial context of a variety show.” Furthermore, the three main characters are male: Frank Jr. (Next to Normal’s Aaron Tveit); his father, Frank Sr. (Tom Wopat); and Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz), the FBI agent in pursuit of the son. “Hairspray was about mothers and daughters, and this is about fathers and sons,” says Shaiman. “And fathers aren’t emoters. They don’t sing as easily as mothers.” And yet they aim to duplicate the one-two punch of Hairspray’s songs: lush, instantly hummable melodies combined with lyrics that pack an emotional wallop. “As funny as Marc and Scott are,” says O’Brien, “they are curiously insightful, even in a very presentational musical. They don’t write psychologically, but there’s psychological insights in everything they write.”
Wittman credits his lifelong love for bravado and outsize personalities to his father, who was “very much like Frank Sr., without the flimflam. He was an umpire, and for me to embrace theater was very difficult for him, though he did make peace with it.” In one song, “Little Boy, Be a Man”—a phrase Wittman’s father used to yell at him—Shaiman wrote the lyric, “He told me, ‘Grow up, kid, you’re no Peter Pan,’” because Wittman had once tried to fly and broke his hip.
The two are simultaneously writing the songs for Smash, Steven Spielberg’s scripted series on the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical (a contender for a slot on NBC’s fall lineup). “Debra Messing plays me, Christian Borle plays Marc, and Anjelica Huston plays Margo Lion,” says Wittman. “Not really, but we like to say that.” Juggling the jobs has meant weeks of running between the Neil Simon Theatre and Smash meetings a few blocks away. “It’s like Inception,” says Wittman. “We’ll be at a meeting for a show about putting on a Broadway musical, then run back to where we’re actually putting on the thing we were pretending to do a few minutes before.”
I bring up Catch Me If You Can’s many musical competitors this spring, including The Book of Mormon, by Shaiman’s former South Park collaborators; Priscilla Queen of the Desert, co-produced by Midler; andSister Act, based on a film Shaiman scored. “I think it’s exciting,” says Wittman. “If one is a hit, everybody’s a hit. Each fills a need somehow.”
“And of course I’m petrified,” says Shaiman. “I can’t believe the competition, how expensive tickets are—who’s going to see more than one show? We should have opened last year!” But at the same time, they want success for their friends. “The meanest thing God has done to us,” says Shaiman, “is make it impossible to wish ill will.”